WASHINGTON (JTA) — Mitt Romney is the whack-a-mole front-runner: He consistently leads the Republican pack, but only by beating back one conservative challenger after another.
First it was Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, and now a surging Herman Cain.
His contradictory status — as a front-runner caught in a constant rearguard action against challengers to his right — both energizes and frustrates one of his most loyal constituencies, Republican Jews.
Romney’s financial backers are a who’s who of the Republican Jewish establishment, and his foreign policy advisers are culled from some of the pro-Israel community’s best and brightest.
Romney has cultivated Jewish Republicans since he launched his unsuccessful bid in 2007 for the ’08 nod, said Fred Zeidman, a longtime backer.
“Every major Jewish Republican fundraiser has been with Mitt” since then, said Zeidman, a Houston lawyer who was a major backer of George W. Bush.
Romney’s relationship with leading Jewish givers, in turn, has brought more top-ranking GOP Jews into the fold, both as donors and advisers, Zeidman said.
“He’s been able to pick and choose," he said. "People have been signing up.”
Yet the former Massachusetts governor continues to be dogged by his status as the moderate front-runner whom the conservative grass-roots longs to replace. Now he is being shadowed in the polls by Cain, a former pizza parlor executive.
An invitation last month to a Romney fundraiser by NORPAC, one of the pre-eminent pro-Israel political action committees, underscored Romney’s precarious status.
“Governor Romney is well known to our community and is one of two front-runners for the Republican Nomination,” the invitation said. “While things are certainly subject to change in an election, Governor Romney is currently the betting site favorite to win the Republican nomination.”
Most galling for Jewish Republicans are the potshots that proxies for his rivals are taking at Romney’s Mormon faith. The latest salvo came over the weekend at the Value Voters Summit in Washington when Robert Jeffress, a pastor at a Dallas megachurch who supports Perry, the Texas governor, called Mormonism a cult.
“I can’t believe as a Jew that anyone is going to be involved in someone’s religion,” Mel Sembler, a shopping center magnate and leading Republican donor who is backing Romney, told JTA. “What’s that got to do with running the biggest enterprise in the world?”
Sembler, a former ambassador to Australia and Italy who has served as the national finance chairman for the Republican National Committee, suggested that Romney was not out of the woods.
“Everything has an impact; some people don’t like the way he combs his hair,” Sembler said. “I would hope people would not be focused on what his religion is but what his capabilities are.”
Zeidman said that Romney’s strategy would remain as it has been: acting like a front-runner and focusing most of the fight on President Obama instead of his GOP rivals.
“If you’re the front-runner and [Obama] is the only person between you and the presidency, focus on him and let the others look at your tuchas,” is how Zeidman described the strategy.
Especially frustrating for Romney’s backers is that the Value Voters Summit kerfuffle overshadowed Romney’s first major foreign policy speech, on Friday at The Citadel military academy in South Carolina.
Israel policy was a significant part of the speech. Romney said he would increase defense assistance to Israel, raise the U.S. military profile near Iran and recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
He cast Obama’s policies as contributing to Israel’s isolation.
"I will bolster and repair our alliances," Romney said. "Our friends should never fear that we will not stand by them in an hour of need. I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel’s existence as a Jewish state."
The Obama and Netanyahu governments have smoothed relations in recent months, and Israeli officials credit the administration with tightening defense ties and backing Israel at the United Nations. Obama also refers to Israel as a Jewish state.
Sembler, who took Romney to Israel in 2007, said the former governor “gets it.” He recalled the overflight of the country, requisite for VIP guests, and a view of the security fence.
“I remember us flying around with the two generals,” Sembler recalled. “The generals kept apologizing for the fence. Governor Romney said, ‘Are the people on the other side of the fence shooting, because I see bullet marks.’ The generals said yes, so Governor Romney said, ‘Don’t apologize.’ ”
Romney in his speech suggested that Israel might become further isolated if Obama remains in office.
"Will Iran be a fully activated nuclear weapons state, threatening its neighbors, dominating the world’s oil supply with a stranglehold on the Strait of Hormuz?" he asked. "In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran’s suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world.
"By 2015, will Israel be even more isolated by a hostile international community? Will those who seek Israel’s destruction feel emboldened by American ambivalence? Will Israel have been forced to fight yet another war to protect its citizens and its right to exist?"
Romney said that as president he would "enhance our deterrent against the Iranian regime by ordering the regular presence of aircraft carrier task forces, one in the eastern Mediterranean and one in the Persian Gulf region. I will begin discussions with Israel to increase the level of our military assistance and coordination. And I will again reiterate that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable."
He also said he would centralize U.S. Middle East policy to ensure "that the Arab Spring does not fade into a long winter."
The speech came a day after Romney published a list of his foreign policy advisers, including many who have been active in or are close to the pro-Israel community, such as Norm Coleman, the former U.S. senator from Minnesota who is now active with the Republican Jewish Coalition; Dan Senor, the co-author of a book on Israeli technological innovation who often works with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; and Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official in various Republican administrations who also is active with the American Jewish Committee.
Zakheim said that Romney was approaching his foreign policy the same way he approached governance of Massachusetts, where he earned plaudits from Democrats for taxing corporations despite his closeness to business.
“He seems to be the kind of guy who wants a range of opinions,” Zakheim said. “He chose a lot of folks from all over the spectrum.”
Indeed, Zakheim and another adviser, Meghan O’Sullivan, have feet in the realist camp of GOP foreign policy, while Senor and Coleman are closer to neoconservatives.